By Jennifer McDermott
The Associated Press
One million gallons of radioactive water is inside a former nuclear power plant along Cape Cod Bay, and it has got to go.
But where, is the vexing question, and will the state intervene as the company dismantling the plant decides?
Holtec International is considering treating the water and discharging it into the bay, drawing fierce resistance from local residents, shell fishermen and politicians. Holtec is also considering evaporating the contaminated water or trucking it to a facility in another state.
The fight in Massachusetts mirrors a current, heated debate in Japan over a plan to release more than 1 million tons of treated radioactive wastewater into the ocean from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant in spring 2023. A massive tsunami in 2011 crashed into the plant. Three reactors melted down.
Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass., closed in 2019 after nearly half a century of providing electricity to the region. U.S. Rep. William Keating, a Democrat whose district includes the Cape, wrote to Holtec with other top Massachusetts lawmakers in January to oppose releasing water into Cape Cod Bay. He asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to examine its regulations.
Keating said in late March that Holtec’s handling of the radioactive water could set a precedent because the U.S. decommissioning industry is in its infancy. Most U.S. nuclear plants were built from 1970 to 1990.
“If they’re listening, sensitive and work with these communities, it’s important,” he said. “That’s the message for future decommissioning sites.”
Holtec has acquired closed nuclear plants across the country as part of its dismantling business, including the former Oyster Creek Generating Station in New Jersey and Indian Point Energy Center in New York. It’s taking ownership of the Palisades Nuclear Plant on Lake Michigan, which is closing this year.
Pilgrim was a boiling water reactor. Water constantly circulated through the reactor vessel and nuclear fuel, converting it to steam to spin the turbine. The water was cooled and recirculated, picking up radioactive contamination.
Cape Cod is a tourist hot spot. Having radioactive water in the bay, even low levels, isn’t great for marketing, said Democratic state Rep. Josh Cutler, who represents a district there. Cutler is working to pass legislation to prohibit discharging radioactive material into coastal or inland waters.
Holtec said Pilgrim had discharged water into the bay for 50 years while the plant was operating and environmental studies, conducted by the plant operators and now Holtec, have shown little or no environmental impact.
“We are working to provide scientific data, educate the public on the reality of radiation in everyday life, and working to have experts explain the true science vs. the emotional fear of the unknown,” spokesperson Patrick O’Brien wrote in an email in March.
Holtec could treat the water and discharge it in batches over multiple years, likely the least-expensive option.
Or it could evaporate the water on site, as it says it has done with about 680,000 gallons over the past two years.
Evaporating the water would be more challenging to do now because the spent nuclear fuel is in storage and couldn’t be used as a heat source. Holtec would have to use a different — likely more expensive — method that would release gas.
Or Holtec could truck the water to an out-of-state facility, where it could be mixed with clay and buried or placed in an evaporation pond, or released into local waterways. That’s what Keating wants.
Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, another boiling water reactor, was shut down in Vernon, Vt., in 2014. It’s sending wastewater to disposal specialists in Texas and other states. NorthStar, a separate and competing corporation in the decommissioning business, is dismantling Vermont Yankee.
Nuclear plants occasionally need to dispose of water with low levels of radioactivity when they’re operating, so a process to release it in batches into local waterways was developed early in the nuclear industry.
The water from those releases was well below the federal limits for the amount of radionuclides in millirems a person would be exposed to in a year if they ate local seafood or swam in nearby waters, according to the NRC.
In Duxbury, Kingston and Plymouth Bays, there are 50 oyster farms — the largest concentration in the state, worth $5.1 million last year, according to the Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative. The collaborative said dumping the water would devastate the industry, and the local economy along with it.
Others didn’t know Pilgrim’s water went into the bay in previous years, and they don’t want it to happen again. “We can’t change that, but we can change what’s happening in the future,” said Cutler, the state lawmaker.
Mary Lampert, of Duxbury, is on a panel created by the state to look at issues related to the Pilgrim’s decommissioning. She believes the state could use its existing laws and regulations to stop the dumping and plans to press the Massachusetts attorney general to file a preliminary injunction to do so.
Holtec expects to decide what to do with the water this year. Discharge, evaporation and some limited transportation likely will be part of the solution, Holtec added.